Hot Under the Collar

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 17, 2006

NEW YORK The designer Karl Lagerfeld emerges from a back office into the bright, white expanse of his showroom with its concrete floor, towering windows and bouquets of white roses. He moves through his days with an entourage of assistants, publicists and pretty people who are all dressed in black and who hover just outside his personal space. When another member of his publicity team arrives wearing a rose-colored coat, she receives a subtle but caustic glance from a colleague. She immediately sheds the offending outerwear, revealing a nondescript black ensemble, thus returning the loft to its sleek black and white perfection.

For designers, appearances are always a matter of concern, but for Lagerfeld -- at this crucial moment in his professional life -- they are the most essential part of his story. He has a new collection to sell, one that bears his name. And unlike almost all his previous work, it is a contemporary line created for mass consumption. With a pair of slashed jeans for women that cost $395, men's straight-leg jeans priced at $250 and a $150 silk-screen T-shirt, the collection is not cheap. But it is far more accessible than the designs Lagerfeld creates for his employers at Fendi and Chanel, where the simplest jacket costs thousands of dollars.

Lagerfeld, 67, built his reputation as a hired hand creating dynamic collections for already established brands and by transforming himself into one of the fashion industry's most memorable characters. Through his work for Chanel, where he has been since 1983, he became one of the most influential designers of the past 20 years. Long before the resurrection of Gucci, Lanvin or any other dusty old design house, Lagerfeld resuscitated Chanel, which had grown stale and bourgeois after its founder's death in 1971. He elevated Chanel signatures such as the tweed jacket and the little black dress into modern fashion mythology. And he cultivated the provocative notion that fashion could bubble up from the street as easily as it could trickle down from the atelier.

"He's an authentic genius," says Peter Marx, president of Saks Jandel, who has known Lagerfeld for 20 years. "There's something unsettling and special about him."

Yet a successful signature label has eluded Lagerfeld. He has designed under his own name before -- but with only mediocre results. A half-dozen times such ventures have petered out, often collapsing from his own inattention.

Other times, the clothes have been so esoteric that they've made little sense to anyone but the designer himself. His most enduring financial success under his own name has been the Karl Lagerfeld group of fragrances.

But in January 2005, Lagerfeld sold his name to Tommy Hilfiger for about $29 million. Later that year the American sportswear company was acquired by Apax Partners, a private equity firm, for $1.6 billion. (For a brief period, it was rumored that Wal-Mart was going to buy Tommy Hilfiger. The mere possibility that the highfalutin name of Karl Lagerfeld would be owned by the world's largest and cheapest merchant both horrified and amused the fashion industry.) Hilfiger, who made his name with preppy sportswear, oversize jeans and patriotic logos, has no creative input in Lagerfeld's collection. But for the first time, there is a large-scale, focused effort to turn the German-born designer into a global brand name in both men's and women's wear.

The Karl Lagerfeld collection was launched this past February with a runway presentation that closed New York Fashion Week. For fall, the collection will be available at such stores as Neiman Marcus, Saks Jandel, Bergdorf Goodman, Intermix and Nordstrom. The new owners have invested millions of dollars wooing top stores, opening an aggressively minimalist showroom and assembling a support staff with the ultimate goal of building a lifestyle brand, which could include anything from housewares to travel accessories.

To make that happen, Lagerfeld is not simply selling his design aesthetic -- he's selling his image, his reputation and, ultimately, himself. The fashion industry is breathless -- no, practically quivering -- with anticipation.

"He is one of fashion's idea men," says Ken Downing, fashion director of Neiman Marcus. "When he says he's going to do something new, you want to see what he's up to. He has his fingers on the pulse of what's happening."

Those in the industry attribute their enthusiasm to Lagerfeld's reputation for being a Renaissance man. He speaks German, English and French. He is a bibliophile with his own publishing imprint. And he is a devotee of the iPod, claiming 100 in his collection. He collects art and antique furniture. Twenty years ago he began to dabble in photography. He now photographs the press kits for Chanel as well as fashion spreads for magazines such as Interview and Harper's Bazaar. He refused to pose for a photograph to accompany this story, instead insisting on providing a self-portrait. The photo is essentially the silhouette of a very thin body topped by a large gray orb.

No fashion launch is guaranteed success, but with this one, it's hard to find a naysayer. Lagerfeld's past failures do not seem to register. No one is pointing to the high-profile departures of designers Jil Sander and Helmut Lang, who sold their brands, then soured on the new owners. Lagerfeld's obsession with narrow, lean cuts is not viewed as problematic in a marketplace filled with wide, round customers. The glut of celebrity fashion brands is no worry. The emperor's clothes are, apparently, beyond reproach.

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